We recently met up with Jay Rees, a second year PhD student at Swansea, to find out more about her exciting research, which aims to capture student life at Swansea University between the years 1920 and 1990.

In our interview with Jay, she explains why this area of research is of particular interest to her and how our alumni can support the University’s historical research.

Jay Rees‌I am a second year PhD student in the History Department at Swansea, where I am currently working on my thesis. The purpose of this thesis is to capture student life at Swansea University between the years 1920 and 1990, paying particular attention to how students have reflected wider social and cultural trends. The research focuses on numerous themes, including student experience at the University, the period during the Second World War and the rise of youth culture. The study will explore how student attitudes towards protest, gender, fashion, relationships, and the surrounding community have changed over time. The finished article will provide not only a comprehensive and cohesive account of student life at this institution, but also act as a lens through which to view student life in the twentieth century.  My research will generate an oral history project, using questionnaires and student based archival material.  I am currently working on several conference papers for the Education of History Society, the Women’s Archive of Wales and a symposium on Universities, Communities and Spaces in Manchester.


Why did you decide to study at Swansea?

I wanted to study close to home, as I lived in the area and could not bear to leave behind the beach and Swansea’s surrounding countryside.  Plus, the university had a brilliant History Department and a good reputation all-round. This decision led me to study both my undergraduate and master’s degree at this institution. Then, in 2015, I was awarded a doctoral studentship to capture the history of student experience at this University. This was commissioned as part of the University’s centenary, which will be celebrated in 2020.

Why did you choose your area of research?

I was drawn to my area of study through my desire to present an intensive historical investigation into how the twentieth century, with its broad cultural changes, affected everyday life. With the University experiencing the aftermath of two world wars, the sixties and the rise of activism, the studentship presented the opportunity to create a case-study of how students reacted, lived and changed through these experiences. Furthermore from an academic perspective, when we look to Swansea’s own institutional history, and others of this nature, the student narrative is under-represented. By writing a history of student life at this institution, the studentship presented an opportunity to fill a historiographical gap.

What have been the highlights?

Initially, it was learning about the history and character of the place that I have worked at since 2011. However, as my research has continued, I have come to appreciate just how far students’ experiences of the University have altered over the century. One of the main contributors to this research, however, has been my past-student questionnaire. Sent out in a previous alumni newsletter, it received around ninety offers of support. Responses were detailed, vivid and thought-provoking.  From these, I have been able to build a colourful picture of what student life was like at Swansea.  Responses regarding the appearance of the institution have been used to support the importance of Swansea’s expansion in the early sixties, while comments about social past-times have been used to explore student culture over the century. Although, I must admit, this is only a small example of how the recollections are currently being used so far. Alongside being used in my thesis, the questionnaire has become the basis of my own Oral history project: Swansea University Student Experience: An Oral History. So far around ten respondents have put their name forward for the project and I start interviewing in mid-September. Without the ninety offers of support, my thesis would have no real authenticity to it. Although newspapers, minutes and manuscripts offer an insight into Swansea’s student life, it is memory which captures it. To those who got in touch, I thank you.

The detailed replies from my questionnaire, alongside the material found in the Richard Burton Archives, have been invaluable to my thesis. By focusing on the finer details offered in these documents, my research has brought to light how far students’ day to day lives, relationships and understandings of the institution, have changed with each decade.  Alongside this, my investigation has also revealed some student anecdotes that would otherwise remain unseen. I have thoroughly enjoyed presenting my ideas to audiences on the radio, at conferences and at internal talks. These have become discussions in which I have been able to convey the importance of Swansea University, to both our understandings of student life and cultural trends during the twentieth century. 

How can our alumni support the centenary research?

Staff  at the Archives at Swansea University are working on a large scale project to catalogue and facilitate access to the University’s archive collections. The collections include material such as official minute books and departmental records, photographs, Student Union newspapers, audio-visual material and the personal papers of former staff and students.  Along with the fascinating material already held in the Archives, it is hoped that further archival material will be discovered to enhance and develop the existing collections. If you have material that relates to the history of the University, please contact the Development and Alumni Relations Office daro@swansea.ac.uk